De-stress With Darla

Oncology Nursing NewsAugust 2017
Volume 12
Issue 6

A navigator's simple idea to bring her therapy dog to the cancer clinic reaped enormous benefits for patients and her colleagues.

Darla the therapy dog

Darla the therapy dog

Darla the therapy dog

My journey started 2 years ago when I lost my beloved dog Darla. She was 16 years old and pretty robust for an old girl until her last few months when old age reared its ugly head, and she died on her own terms when I was away. I think she knew how difficult her loss would be for me and did not want me there when she died.

Needless to say, I was devastated. I knew I wanted to provide a forever home for a new dog. It was just a matter of finding the right dog, and it had to be a rescue dog. I was looking for a specific breed and gender (female Border collie or Border collie mix), and my goal was to train her to be a certified therapy dog. I knew how much comfort and love my dogs have brought to me throughout my life, and I wanted to pay it forward by having her visit the cancer center where I work as a nurse navigator.

It was not long after Darla died that I was set to adopt a new dog. I was so excited that I found a new addition to the family, only to be rejected 3 days before I was to pick up my new dog, Sally.

I believe in karma and 3 days later I found an email concerning a dog I had inquired about. I was doing an adoption via the internet, and after careful screening and a lot of discussion specifically related to being a therapy dog, the adoption was approved. My new dog was rescued from a kill shelter in Georgia and was being fostered by a wonderful woman close to the shelter. She came north on the canine transport bus with several other dogs who were traveling to their new forever homes. She was named Darla by the rescue. Talk about coincidence! I think this match was made in heaven.

Darla and I trained for more than a year. We did basic obedience classes and certified therapy dog training. We spent a lot of time practicing to ensure we got it right. She was trained amid noise, with people, with other dogs, and with what she would be in contact with in a medical setting. She did great and passed her test on the first try. I knew I had a smart girl!


I had spoken with my director and our integrative navigator many times throughout our training about starting a therapy program for patients and staff. As oncology providers, we deal with a lot of stress and are so giving to others that we often forget to care for ourselves.

The administration approved our program: “De-stress with Darla Days.” Now, she comes to work with me once or twice a week to provide therapy to anyone who needs some extra love. When she has her ID and red bandana on, she is in her work mode, brightening everyone’s day and providing lots of laughs.

The changes she brings about in people are amazing. When she arrives in the morning, she goes to every staff member’s office to check on all her "herd." One of my colleagues found out she had a death in her family while at work one day. Darla sensed her loss and immediately went into see her and just sat with her.

Our administrator was not a huge fan of dogs at the start of the program but has been charmed by Darla. The two are now best friends. Darla visits her several times a day, and she has taken multiple selfies with her. She constantly asks when she is coming to work because Darla helps her unwind.

One of our big events occurred when our clinics were doubling in size. Need- less to say, moving clinic space, patients, and providers all at the same time to new locations was a massive task. We held a "De-stress With Darla" week, where she was available for staff and patients to decompress and spend some time away from all the craziness. We had giveaways, food, and just a quiet space where people could unwind. Darla was the main attraction, and the feedback we received from the staff and patients told us having her as part of the team helped everyone feel better during the change.


Darla makes clinic rounds to see patients in the waiting areas to provide support and love, helping patients to share their feelings and cope with a stressful time. Many of our patients live far away and have to leave their pets behind, so Darla reminds them of home. She also has provided bereavement therapy to several patients who recently lost a pet. Darla is a very good listener. Nurses never know where an idea will end up, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box. That is what we do best as oncology nurse navigators.

Do you have a navigation story to share with your colleagues? Email

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